Does Matthew 14:25-26 give biblical support to thinking that ghosts are real?
In Matthew 14:25-26, it looks like the disciples believed in ghosts, though Jesus never mentions it? Does the Bible validate or invalidate the existence of ghosts? Any evidence that ghosts roam the earth, haunt houses etc? Mat 14:25-26 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
There is no direct support for the reality of ghosts in the Bible. In fact, what the Bible teaches leans fairly strongly against the reality of ghosts, although, to be honest, it is not absolutely ruled out, but would probably be best described as highly unlikely.
First, there is the passage in Matthew 14:25-26. This passage does describe the apostles superstitious belief that they have seen a ghost. Jesus gives zero credence to their belief. In fact he mildly rebukes them, perhaps not for believing in ghosts, but for their lack of faith. There is no support here for a biblical belief in ghosts, although there is evidence that some people believed in them back then. Well…. We already knew that!
The only passage that I have seen used to support the claim that the Bible supports belief in ghosts is in 1 Sam 28:7-19. This is the story of Saul and the witch of Endor. In this story Saul asked a medium to call forth the spirit of Saul in order to confer with him regarding a military campaign he had embarked on. Saul did so, not because of a biblical command, but because of his lack of faith. It was well known that mediums were under a death penalty in Israel if they engaged in such demonic activity. In the case in question, when Saul asks to talk to Samuel the old man appeared to the witch in a robe. Samuel rebukes Saul, both for asking the witch to call him forth, and because of his lack of faith and obedience which had led him and Israel into such a dire predicament.
I will argue that this scene is NOT biblical support for belief in ghosts. To explain this, let me provide a definition of the word “ghost”. A ghost, by definition, is a disembodied person who has died but whose spirit for some reason remains here on the earth.
By this definition, what Saul saw when he asked the witch to call for Samuel was not a ghost. I believe it is far more likely that Samuel was in what is known as Hades. Hades is the waiting place that souls occupy between earthly life and final judgment. It is called Sheol in the Old Testament. The Bible does not give us a lot to go on here, but there are a couple of hints about this waiting place. In Luke 16:19-31 we have a parable about a poor man named Lazarus and a greedy and arrogant rich man. When both die, Lazarus ends up in Paradise, which appears to be the “good” side of Hades, while the rich man ended up in Hades, which is the “bad” side of the waiting place. Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross that they would be together that day in Paradise (Luke 23:43). Another enigmatic reference to Hades is found in 1 Peter 3:19-20 in which many Christian commentators believe that the “spirits in prison” were in Hades.
Given that there is no warrant in the Bible for belief in disembodies spirits being left behind on the earth, and given the Old Testament references to Sheol and New Testament references to Hades, it is vastly more likely that Saul called Samuel from Hades. If true, then by definition, Samuel was not a ghost—a disembodied spirit hanging out on the earth, haunting people.
There is only one passage in the entire scripture which, in my opinion, could be seen as possibly supporting the idea of ghosts, but this one is a stretch. It is in Matthew 27:51-53 which describes bodies coming out of their tombs when Jesus died. However, there is no indication at all here that these resurrected people had been ghosts. The resurrected ones themselves were not ghosts, as they had bodies. A resurrection does not turn a ghost into a living physical person. It reembodies one who has died and is now, presumably, in Hades.
My conclusion is that Matthew 14:25-26 is a straightforward historical account of the apostles believing they had saw a ghost when in fact they had not. There is no support here whatsoever for the conclusion that ghosts were then or have ever been real. What it is evidence of is that this superstition was around in Palestine in the third century. Could ghosts be real? I suppose I do not have a slam dunk scriptural proof against their reality, but I see not biblical warrant for this belief and, given the biblical teaching that we go to Hades after life, I have really good reason to believe that they are not real.
It is possible that some of what people have described as being due to ghosts is in fact due to demons, but that is another story….